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The Merchant of Venice

    John Gargo
    Senior Member

  • The Merchant of Venice

    Releasing by: Shout! Factory
    Released on: May 17th, 2016.
    Director: John Schiel
    Cast: Laurence Olivier, Joan Plowright
    Year: 1973
    Purchase From Amazon

    The Film:

    It has become almost impossible to discuss William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice without struggling with fundamental questions regarding how audiences should respond to this work. When the play was published in the 1623 Folio edition of the Bard's collected works, it was classified as a comedy. Most modern productions tend to emphasize its tragic dimension, thereby putting it more in line with works like Measure for Measure and All's Well That Ends Well as one of Shakespeare's so-called “problem plays.” These plays are only problematic, however, if we take a narrow view of genre; after all, there are tragic components to nearly all of Shakespeare's comedies and bawdy humor has its place in the tragedies as well. In our modern understanding of Shakespeare as “high art,” we tend to forget that these were populist plays that were meant to please both the nobility and the peasantry.

    The real source of the play's problematic nature is the thorny question of antisemitism - Shylock's character looms so large in the audience's imagination that we tend to forget that his narrative is actually secondary to Antonio's plight (the titular merchant). There is also another subplot involving Portia, a wealthy heiress who subjects a series of suitors to a game of chance in order to win the right to her hand in marriage and her fortune. These strands collide in the play's climactic trial scene and it would be silly not to acknowledge some undoubtedly antisemitic sentiments expressed both by the action and the characters themselves; one of Antonio's friends, Gratiano, spits the word “Jew” at Shylock on more than one occasion during these final moments, and you can almost sense the bile in his throat. But to what extend did Shakespeare share in these prejudicial sentiments?

    The key to understanding a character like Shylock is to compare him to another Venetian outsider in the Shakespearean canon - Othello. It is interesting to go back and look at the early scenes in Othello and see how the play traffics in many stereotypes regarding dark-skinned peoples; Othello is accused of practicing witchcraft and his lovemaking with the light-skinned Desdemona is likened to a bestial act. It is only until the third scene of that play that Othello addresses the Venetian court (and the audience) and explodes their prejudices and reveals the essential humanity and nobility of his character. That Shakespeare was able to craft a play in the early 17th century that inspired his audience to feel pathos at the plight of a Moor was very remarkable, and the play feels downright topical in light of race issues.

    Shylock's “otherness” in The Merchant of Venice is similarly put to clever and unexpected use by Shakespeare, although we must keep in mind that we're dealing with a comedy instead of a tragedy in this case. The fact that Shylock is a Jew is exploited by the playwright in creating an exotic villain for his piece - there is no question that Shylock's character is inexorably wrapped up in antisemitic clichés (he is a moneylender who demands his “pound of flesh” when Antonio cannot pay back his bond). And yet, the play's most famous lines, spoken by Shylock on his own behalf, undercut these same clichés:

    He hath disgraced me, and
    hindered me half a million; laughed at my losses,
    mocked at my gains, scorned my nation, thwarted my
    bargains, cooled my friends, heated mine
    enemies; and what's his reason? I am a Jew. Hath
    not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs,
    dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with
    the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject
    to the same diseases, healed by the same means,
    warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as
    a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed?
    if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison
    us, do we not die? and if you wrong us, shall we not

    Here is Shakespeare's brilliance on display and it is a grand example of how he was able to use the dramatic form in order to provide insight into the human condition. It is a testament to the strength and complexity of the play that it continues to inspire impassioned debate regarding its meaning - if anything, the horrors of modernity (in particular the Jewish pogroms of the 19th and 20th century and the Holocaust) - have intensified the scrutiny regarding this work. Every stage production and film version of The Merchant of Venice therefore becomes yet another interpretation of the play and adds to the continuing dialogue about its meaning.

    This 1973 production of The Merchant of Venice was filmed for BBC TV and directed by John Sichel, who had previous helmed television versions of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night in 1969 and Anton Chekhov's Three Sisters in 1970; in fact, the latter production starred the husband-and-wife team of Laurence Olivier and Joan Plowright, who are reunited with their director in this movie. Olivier plays Shylock, and naturally gets top billing, whereas Joan Plowright takes on the role of Portia. These two actors give excellent performances in the grand, old-fashioned theatrical tradition and they are a treat to watch. The supporting cast also does good work, although the suitor scenes are played a bit broad for my taste. The most interesting facet regarding this TV movie is the decision to set the play in Victorian dress. By doing so, the filmmakers emphasize the play's modernity, not just in its relation to antisemitism in our time but also its economic themes. Karl Marx was a key figure in mid-19th century life and the plot of The Merchant of Venice certainly lends itself to a Marxist analysis; it is a play that is not only informed by the social and economic institutions of Elizabethan England but also has relevancy to our own time as well.


    Shout Factory's DVD of The Merchant of Venice is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.33:1. This TV movie was shot on video and unfortunately the image has seen better days. The colors look drab and washed out and there's no real sharpness to the image- this will not look good on your high-def television. Perhaps the biggest issue in terms of the video is the ghosting that occurs throughout the film. The elements simply weren't in good shape here.

    The audio is a similar lackluster affair, with the Dolby Digital Mono track showing its age. There is a lack of clarity and an annoying hiss that distract from the play's quiet moments. None of the dialogue is obscured although there is occasionally slight distortion that is evident with the presence of music on the soundtrack.

    Alas, no extras.

    The Final Word:

    This version of The Merchant of Venice is particularly notable for its strong central performances by Olivier and Plowright. It's a shame that the elements used for Shout Factory's DVD are in such rough shape, although this is unlikely to dissuade Shakespeare fanatics from adding it to their personal collection. It's not the best filmed version of this fascinating play (I'm partial to Michael Radford's sumptuous 2004 film with Al Pacino) but it's an excellent production. Recommended.

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